Monday, 8 April 2019

JCT Chapter Four: Running Out Of Everything


CHAPTER FOUR


April 25, 2003
I feel like such a teenager. I don't know what was more of a buzz, the town turning into a zombie movie for the night, or the fact that Jess almost kissed me. I kind of feel bad about that happening while my family and Marie were out wandering.
I can't believe I just wrote that. I'm more interested in the thought that Jess almost kissed me while the town was under some kind of hypnotic spell? I mean, granted, it's Jess, but still...
Mom and dad were back in bed safe and asleep by the time I got home. So was Ben. I managed to get a few hours too. I figured it was safe to sleep again, since our quota of insanity was filled for the night.
I looked over my journals this morning, and its scaring me how often I can remember waking up with dirt on my socks in the last month. It's been happening all this time. One mystery solved, but I don't feel better.
I started this by looking for answers. All the answers I find just scare the hell out of me.
~oo00oo~
Deanna ripped the covers back and shook Jake's leg hard. "Wake up, Jake. Wake UP!"
Jake groaned.
"Come on, you'll miss breakfast." Deanna told her son, already heading out the door. "Get up; your eggs are getting cold."
Eggs? Jake sat up painfully. What day is this?
~oo00oo~
"What day is this?" Ben asked him in confusion, staring at his plate. A plate of scrambled eggs and toast. "We have bacon and eggs on Saturday."
Jake yawned hard and sat down next to him. "I think we're out of muesli." He guessed.
"And bacon too, apparently." David agreed, sitting down. "And orange juice."
"Where did we get eggs?" Jake asked quietly. "Because I'm pretty sure they ran out of that at the market."
"Plenty of people in town keep chickens." Deanna said. "I went shopping in the neighborhood."
They all ate quietly. Jake watched them discreetly, wondering if they knew. None of them were saying anything, talking about their plans for the day like they usually did at the breakfast table. Jake wondered if they were tense about the fact that the week's grocery shopping had been done by barter... Or half asleep since they had all been sleepwalking.
"So, what's on for today?" He said finally.
"School's been closed." Deanna volunteered. "David?"
David nodded. "I can handle the Prisoner for a day." He said, and young Ben made a face at him, before glaring at Jake. 'The Prisoner' had it pretty easy, but with the TV off, Ben suddenly saw the value of being outside.
Jake met his brother's glare head on, trying not to be intimidated by the wrath of a nine year old boy with a secret, when something dawned on him. "Wait. When did the school close?"
"Yesterday." Ben told him. "After the Cafeteria shut down, and they couldn't call anybody. The teachers figured it was... I don't know, but they sent everyone home.."
Silence. They all knew that the school could run independently for a long time without contacting anyone else in the state. But the teachers had sent the kids home to their families anyway. It was a silent admission that their home was under siege, though nobody had said so.
Deanna rose. "I have to get to the Clinic. Jake?"
Jake shrugged. "I... guess if the grade school closed, the high school will too, but I haven't heard anything. So I guess I'm going to school, then I figured I'd meet up with Zack..."
"If you're anywhere near your fishing rod, see what you can catch us for dinner." His father commented, only half joking. He yawned, and Deanna reacted with a yawn of her own. A moment later, so did both their boys.
"Well, this is a perky little group." David chuckled. "We need coffee."
"We're running low on coffee too." His mother said quietly, an a tone that spoke of absolute doom.
~oo00oo~
It's funny, what matters to people. Ben hit the low point early into the Blockade, nearly in tears when the TV stopped working. Mom took it all in stride until the coffee went dry.
The High School lasted until the end of second period, before the teachers were all called into an unexpected faculty meeting. The students were sent home soon after.
Ordinarily there would have been huge cheering and celebrating, but even in biology class, the tension was growing palpable. The School was actually feeling the paranoia stronger than most of the town.
The reason why didn't hit me until today, but more than half our class isn't there. A lot of the kids in our school come in from the farm areas surrounding the town, and everyone who lives further out than the Bridge has been absent since the Blockade started. It's not uncommon for dangerous roads and heavy fog to keep them home for a day or two... but not this long.
I came out of the school, and I saw all my classmates, looking at each other awkwardly, or not looking at all, keeping their heads down as they made their way home.
I went to Jess' house instead. We agreed to meet up at the Diner after school, since it was still closed and we'd have privacy, but the last time I saw either of them was before dawn, and Marie was asleep at the time.
As it happened, I almost beat them there. They were just unlocking the front door of Jess' place when I arrived.
~oo00oo~
Jess saw him coming up the path and opened the conversation by telling a story. "You know Mrs Blanchard?" She asked him straight off.
Jake nodded. "Yeah. Cat-Lady, right?"
"She has one cat, so that's not really a fair nickname." Marie told him. "You know that shed she has out the back of her house?"
"Yeah."
"Turns out it's full of..." Marie paused and looked at Jess. "Sorry, Jess; you were telling him this story."
Jess nodded and looked to Jake. "You're gonna love this. That shed is full of boxes and boxes and more boxes of instant cake mix. Chocolate, marble cake, vanilla, banana, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, shelf after shelf of long-life instant cake mix."
Jake snorted back a laugh. "What on earth was she stockpiling it all for?"
"I have no idea, but this morning, her next door neighbor commented that it was her kid's birthday, and the market had none of the ingredients to make a cake." Jess continued.
Marie jumped in. "Mrs Blanchard traded a box of instant chocolate cake mix for a half a tin of coffee. But you know Cat-Lady only drinks tea, so she traded that to your mom for twenty dollars." She looked at Jess, who was annoyed at her for taking over the story again, and she shrugged. "Sorry, Jess. I tell it better."
"Twenty dollars for half a tin?" Jake repeated in surprise. "There's taking advantage, and then there's price gouging."
"I agree, but you know what your mom is like when she's in the third hour of caffeine withdrawal." Marie nodded.
Jess jumped in. "By the time the school closed, Mrs Blanchard was out the front of her house, trading her instant cake mix for food, and home-brew, and whatever else, and then trading that stuff for hard cash." She told him, and turned back to Marie. "I tell it fine." She said pointedly and resumed the story. "So now she's taking in money hand over fist. I swear, Mrs Gilmore was there, trading her diamond bracelet and a set of earrings for blueberry jam and toilet paper."
Jake snorted back a laugh. The image was too ridiculous.
"Don't laugh too loud, Jake. Cat-Lady is rapidly becoming the Black Market Mobster of Curtis Creek." Jess told him solemnly.
Jake laughed harder.
"The Sheriff found out that she had two marijuana plants growing in her backyard, and he wanted to arrest her. Your mom convinced him to let her take the plants because the Clinic was running low on painkillers, so Sheriff Tanner yanked the plants out and gave Blanchard a fine. She paid him with one of the diamond earrings and went back to hustling canned goods."
By this time, Jake was giggling helplessly, as the girls led the way inside long enough to drop off their school things; and Jess took the opportunity to change clothes.
~oo00oo~
"All right, I'm going to go tell Pierce that we're meeting up." Jess said on her way out, tossing Marie the keys. "Meet you at the Diner in half an hour?"
Marie and Jake nodded, and Jess made her goodbyes.
"You want a drink?" Marie offered, and they made their way into the kitchen.
Jake collected the glasses, Marie searched through the fridge. "I can offer you... water."
Jake chuckled. "You think Jess' parents had coffee? I hear there's a going market for that sort of thing."
"Tell me about it. It's starting to get really tight out there." Marie agreed grimly, and her eyes met his. "Say, Jake..." She said, overly casual. "I seem to recall you being in my room last night around four... I think Jess was with you..." She smirked a little. "And I could swear the two of you were tucking me in. I thought I was dreaming it, but this morning Jess swears on a stack of bibles that it wasn't a dream." She took a breath. "She swears a few other things happened last night, by the way."
Jake sighed. "It's all true."
Marie shivered. "I honestly don't remember any of it."
"You were asleep." He excused. "But yeah, it's the honest truth."
They didn't say anything for a while, not knowing what to say about any of it.
"Are you sure there's nothing you left out? I'm sure there's probably other reasons why you'd like to hang around Jess' house in the middle of the night." Marie chuckled, with a mirth she didn't really feel.
"Sure, but if I was here for that, would we come to tuck you in first?" Jake challenged.
Marie chuckled, when she noticed Jake wasn't even close to laughing with her. "What?" She asked, surprised at his look. "Did I touch a nerve?"
"I had a chat with Zack the other day, about you getting a little caught up in this... whatever-the-hell it is with Jess." Jake said carefully. "I was debating whether or not to mention it, but it's bothering Zack, and he's seeing enough divisions between the two of us and him right now, so if I can fix this one..."
Marie sighed. "Well, it was inevitable that he'd tell you, I guess."
"So much so that it's a surprise you didn't warn me." Jake got to the point. "Marie, what's going on?"
She didn't answer at first, didn't even look at him. "Look... this isn't the time for this."
"I agree, which is why I'd rather we deal with this now rather than later." Jake pressed. "I thought we were good, Marie. I thought we were still friends."
Marie looked at him, horrified. "Of course we are!" She reached out and held his face between her hands. "We are, I swear."
"Then what? What is it?" Jake demanded. "Because you've been in the middle of this... whatever it is with Jess since before it started."
"I'm your friend." Marie said. "And we dated before. If anyone gets to have a valid opinion about your dating life, it's me."
"Zack is my friend too." Jake said seriously. "And you two are good together." He paused, watching her reaction. "Right?"
"I love Zack." Marie confirmed.
"Good, because he's convinced that the reason you're so concerned with my relationships, is because you're not at all interested in your own." Jake said, waiting for her to refute it.
And she said nothing.
Jake looked at her carefully. "Marie?"
Marie shook her head back and forth a little. "I love Zack." She said again.
"But?"
Marie sighed thickly. "Jess isn't right for you. She's too... eager to get out of Curtis Creek."
"And I'm what? Small town?"
"Jake, I come from a big city. I can tell when someone doesn't fit, because I was like that for a long time." Marie was suddenly babbling, as if trying to find a way to end the sentence. "Jess is small town, but she doesn't want to be... and you make things fit. When I first arrived, I hated it here, and then you came over and introduced yourself, and you became my best friend by the end of the day, and you showed me around, and after a while I realized that I did fit here, and it was because of you, and Jess is never going to be satisfied with Curtis Creek, and she'll..." Marie suddenly ran out of words. "I'm sorry."
They were silent for a long time.
Marie tried again. "Back where I grew up, kids my age lived and died with whatever was happening in the next ten minutes. We lived and died with having a new outfit, or the right gadget... You don't, and after a few days with you, that kind of life seemed like a ridiculous joke to me too." Marie said. "I like myself more now than I did then. We may not have worked out, but don't think for a second that what happened with us was a failure. You brought out good things in me, Jake. Stuff I didn't even think of... and it won't be that way with Jess. She's..." Marie hesitated. "I say this with a lot of love for both of you. She's a flake."
"She is not. God, you too?" Jake fumed. "She's blonde and pretty and you think that makes her a ditz, but... She's bright, she's fun, and she's sweet."
"So's a puppy, until something shiny comes along." Marie shot back. "Jake, if she said she wanted to keep things casual and light, what would you say?"
Jake shrugged. "I'd be okay with that."
"No, you wouldn't." She scorned. "You don't do casual, Jake. You're just not wired for it. I asked you about that when we were a couple. Remember what you said?"
Jake hesitated, and nodded. "I said... that casual dating didn't make sense to me. I said that if things were good you want more, and if they're not then what's the point?"
"Exactly. You're not Pierce, and you're not Jess." Marie sighed, knowing she was in way too deep and gone way too far, but she didn't stop. "Jake, you remember when we came over to your place, and she thanked me for help with 'the other thing'?"
"Yeah."
"The 'other thing' was you." She said tightly. "She spoke to me the night before the Aurora came, and she said that she screwed up and told you she wanted to be friends. I didn't get it at first, but she was asking me for a cheat sheet. She wanted to know the things you liked, the... she asked me for the right words to say so that you would be more comfortable with her. I told her that you liked the rain. She tell you that she did too?"
Jake didn't answer right away.
Marie nodded. "I told her what you told me about taking imaginary vacations with all the space pictures. She try that one out?"
Jake found his voice. "Marie, everyone does that. If they're interested, they look for things they have in common, or things the other person likes. Zack did the same thing before his first date with you. It's exactly what I would do if any of her friends would deign to talk to me."
"She cheated. Jake, she talks as tough as any of us, but she can't..." Marie waved a hand back and forth, trying to put it into words. "She's falling apart, Jake. If her family was still around, she'd be fine. But she's alone, and she's scared, and she's never been alone for five minutes before in her life. Don't mistake that for true love."
Jake's face had turned to stone. "Marie... I care about Jess, and I don't want to have to choose between my friends and..."
"And what? Your girlfriend?" Marie challenged. "Because Jess has been swinging back and forth from your girlfriend to your lab-partner to your study buddy and back again since this mess started. She doesn't have a clue what she wants, so how do you know she wants you?"
Jake started to say something, changed his mind. He started to say something else, hesitated... And stood up. "We better get going. The others are waiting for us. Tell Zack you're sorry about obsessing over your friends, and that you never would have done it if you knew he had such a problem with it."
Marie sighed, and gave him a single nod. "I will."
"Be nice to Jess. Maybe it's a mistake, but it's mine to make."
"Yes. It is." Marie agreed, unhappy.
Jake turned to go. "You've always had my back, Marie. Your opinion matters, but please don't make this worse."
"I won't."
Jake forced a big smile for her. "She breaks my heart, you'll still be there to help put it back together again?"
He made his tone light, and she chuckled despite herself. "Won't even say 'I told you so'." She promised.
"And if things with Jess work out?"
"I'll put this conversation into my wedding toast." Marie chuckled.
Jake relaxed, knowing that they were okay. "Let's go."
"...I miss you." Marie said behind him.
Jake froze, halfway out the door, and very slowly took one step back into the house, turning to face her. "...what?"
Marie wasn't looking at him, collecting her jacket, staring at her feet as she pulled it on. "Nothing." She said.
Jake looked at her carefully. "Nono, you said something."
Marie walked past him, heading outside. "Nothing important."
"Tell me?" He pushed gently, needing to be sure of what he heard.
Marie sighed. "You brought out the best in me, Jake. What does Jess bring out in you?" But she didn't wait for an answer, pushing past him quickly, heading outside.
Feeling very unsettled, Jake went with her to meet the others.
~oo00oo~
Marie knew where the spare key was. The Diner was empty when we got there.
I was glad Zack wasn't there at first. He's my oldest and closest friend, and I have been neglecting him lately. It's happened before, something big comes up and we have to deal with it, then that whatever-it-is passes and we tell each other all about it. But I didn't know how to face him after the conversation with Marie.
Jess had changed slightly since the night before. She was more charged, more determined. I guess now it was so much more real. We have seen strange things over the last week, but none of us knew exactly what it was we were seeing.
Last night... there was no mistaking what was happening. I have no idea what it means, or who was doing it, or why they'd want to, but there was no doubt about the fact that it happened.
I just wish Marie saw it that way.
Even after the conversation with Marie, I was more focused on what I was going to say to the others about Ben. They had to know, and I rehearsed it in my head a hundred times, waiting for Pierce to join us, so I could tell them everything.
Except Pierce didn't show up...
~oo00oo~
"I couldn't find Pierce." Jess said as Marie led her and Jake in. "He wasn't at home, he wasn't at the field. I ran into Zack, he said he'd keep an eye out. He was doing... something, I don't know, really. I think he was asking teachers for advice about supplies."
"The whole town's asking about supplies." Jake nodded. "My guess is the town has enough growers and livestock to keep everyone fed, but most of the town is still expecting the 'blockade' to lift any day now...."
"I wonder if anyone believes that any more." Jess commented darkly. "I mean, you ask them, they'll all say they do, but I wonder if anyone really believes things are fine, deep down in their bones."
"And that's not even counting the night shift." Marie commented.
Long silence.
Jess spoke first. "Actually that raises an interesting question: How are we supposed to convince the whole town that they were sleepwalking last night? We can barely convince Marie, and she woke up with us standing over her."
"Actually, that's also something worth mentioning." Jake countered. "I don't think everyone was out last night. I was doing a tally in my head on the way home, and only about half my street was walking around."
Marie leaned forward. "The back door wasn't locked this morning." She said. "I don't think it was locked last night either. I might have been sleepwalking, but I wasn't... I don't... Jess, you were watching, did I have enough sense to unlock a door?"
Jess chewed her lip a moment. "I don't know. Probably not."
Marie looked at everyone in turn. "When we first moved here, my dad said that one of the best things about this town was that people didn't have to lock their doors at night. And that hasn't changed..."
"You think the people who weren't wandering around town last night were the ones who's doors were open." Jake finished the thought for her. "That explains why not everyone has dirty feet this morning."
The door opened, and Zack came running to them quickly. "Here! I'm here! Sorry I'm late."
Marie pounced as soon as he walked in. "Zack, were your socks dirty when you woke up this morning?"
Zack blinked. "Or, 'hello' as some people would open the conversation."
Marie shook her head swiftly. "Right, sorry. Hello. Did you have dirt on your socks this morning?"
"I don't wear socks to bed." Zack responded with dignity. "But no, I keep clean, thank you. Do you mind if I ask why this is a matter of such interest?"
"Never mind." Jess waved that off. "Did you find Pierce?"
"I did, and he was pacing the cage." Zack reported. "His dad didn't take him home yesterday. The Sheriff locked him up in the Drunk Tank. That time of day he had the place to himself." He thought of something else. "Hey, does '44-B' mean anything to you guys?"
"44-B?" Jake repeated, thinking for a moment before shaking his head. "Nothing I can think of off the top of my head. Why?"
"Pierce said when he woke up the other day, before meeting us at Town Hall, he had that written on the back of his hand. He says he leaves himself reminders like that when he's drunk so that he remembers the important stuff when he's sober. He doesn't have a clue what it means, but it sounds familiar to me and I can't remember why." Zack explained, frustration clear on his face. "44-B, it's right on the tip of my brain, and I just can't quite get there."
"Doesn't mean anything to me, either." Jess snorted. "But I'm not a bit surprised he's in jail. Pierce is underage, and The Sheriff knows that his son is drinking. He's been trying to catch him out for over a year. He's got everyone who sells booze in town, and most of the home brewers under watch."
"Then how'd Pierce manage to get smashed by nine in the morning?" Marie wondered.
"Oh, I thought nobody would ever ask." Zack said, pleased with himself. "Pierce had the sense to keep his supplier a secret. But he told me once his dad was out of the room." He grinned at him. "It was Eddie Sisko."
"The newspaper guy?" Marie blinked. "The editor got an underage high school football player drunk? He's not that stupid. For that matter, why did Eddie have the booze? I thought he was dry for the last ten years."
Jess and Jake traded a quick look. "He was. But he fell off the wagon when we rehearsed the Festival. Not sure why." Jake looked at Zack. "But... he wouldn't go to Pierce for a drinking buddy, surely?"
"I agree." Zack said. "It took me a while to get a coherent answer out of him, but as far as I can tell, Pierce spent most of yesterday going around town discreetly checking people over with the metal detector. They way he was describing it, it seemed to me like Eddie was trying to get answers."
"Answers to what?" Jess asked him with interest.
"I'm not sure." Zack said. "But whatever it was, Sisko poured another shot every time Pierce refused to tell him."
"Come to think of it, where has Eddie been this whole time?" Jake asked suddenly. "The whole town is coming apart, and I haven't seen one newspaper printed and delivered since everyone went under blockade. He couldn't have run out of paper that quickly, right?"
"Well, if he's started drinking again..." Marie volunteered. "He practically runs the town paper himself. Could be that's all stopped because he's started getting loaded."
Jake froze, eyes narrowing.
"I know that look." Marie said swiftly. "What's on your mind, Jake?"
"When did Eddie start drinking?" Jake asked. "I mean originally, the very first time?"
"Oh, long time ago, when we were little kids." Jess said. "It was the Founders Day party. He threw up in the punch bowl, made his own front page. That would have been what? Fifteen years ago?"
"Eleven years and change." Jake corrected.
Marie snapped her fingers. "That was around the same time Doug Gunn vanished." She said, looking gamely at Jake. "You think that Eddie knew more than he was letting on, and now that it's happening again..."
Zack put a hand out. "Hold on. We just got done accusing the Mayor, the Sheriff... That's half the Town Council. We move on to Sisko next, and we're effectively fighting all of City Hall."
"City Hall? In Curtis Creek?" Jake couldn't help the smirk. "Zack, it's Eddie Sisko. We know Eddie. He used to sneak us sweets when our parents weren't looking. He's not Al Capone, I mean... how long did we call him 'Uncle Eddie' before we realized he wasn't actually part of our family?"
"A long time."
"If we can't get a straight answer out of Mayor Grady, then we have to get it out of someone." Jess said firmly, jumping to her feet. "At the very least, he might have something we don't."
Nobody moved.
Jess looked at them all impatiently. "Well?"
"Jess, when I got home from seeing the Mayor yesterday? My dad was waiting. Mayor Grady apparently spoke to him."
"Mine too." Zack volunteered.
"And mine." Marie added. "I tried to tell them why."
Jake looked over, curious. "And?"
"I have to make an appointment with a therapist as soon as we get the phones back." Marie sighed.
"My dad was ready to put me in a rubber room as well." Jake sighed. "He basically told me to stop using Jess' brain and the safety of her parents as a pick-up line."
Jess let out a low noise of disgust.
Long silence. They all looked at each other, then to Jess. "Listen, Jess..." Marie said gently. "You've got more on the line than we do right now. If you say go, we will, but just be clear, what we've done so far is not popular. Go any further, and we might be keeping Pierce company in jail."
"On what charge?"
"Well, you calling off the search for your family is going to get some attention." Zack pointed out.
Jess took that in and set her jaw. She tossed her hair over one shoulder defiantly, and started walking with fire in her eyes. "Well, if I'm going to jail for this, I'm gonna know more about my family than I do now." Jess said harshly. "Let's go ask Eddie."
"Ask him what?" Jake said quietly.
Jess didn't look back. "For one thing, Pierce spent the day checking people for Implants. I want to know if he told Eddie how many he found." By then she was already out the door and the others scrambled to keep up.
~oo00oo~
Jess hammered her fist on the door to the Curtis Creek Chronicle. And then did so again.
"Maybe he's not in." Jake guessed, coming up behind her. "It's a one man operation. He runs the place himself. Just him and a few students..." He sent a look back at Zack. "And the paper's been shut down when the supplies stopped coming in, so why would he even be here?"
"Because he's not at home." Jess said and hammered on the door again, calling in. "Eddie? Open up!"
There was no answer. Jess went around the back of the building, and started peeking in the windows.
"Okay, this isn't right. What you're doing right now? This is not right." Marie said quietly, as everyone followed.
"If Eddie's passed out drunk in there, I want to know it before I go hiking all over town looking for him." Jess said simply.
Marie looked through the windows.. "I didn't even know there was an apartment back here."
Zack nodded. "Eddie converted two rooms and a bath so that he'd never have to leave the building. He kept his own place, but having a bed here let him work odd hours."
Jess stood on her tiptoes, to get a look further into the building... and her face changed. "Jake? What does that look like to you? The floor beside the bathroom door?"
Jake slid in next to her, suddenly breathing in the smell of her hair. "Um..."
"Jake, focus." She said without turning.
"Right." Jake returned crisply and peered in the window... and he noticed what had made Jess blanch. Inside the building he could see a dark red puddle on the hardwood floor, coming from under the bathroom door. "It looks like... oh God."
Marie pushed her way beside them to look, and her expression hardened. "Zack, go get Deanna, hurry!" She snapped, and quickly cast about, looking for the first thing she could reach, which was a pot plant beside the back porch. She caught it up in one hand and smashed out the glass beside the door, reaching around to unlock it.
Jess was the first one in the door, with Jake and Marie right on her heels. The three of them ran for the bathroom, where a pool of blood had spread out from under the closed door. It had spread across the hardwood floors of the hallway till it reached the carpet of the office space.
Jess sprinted to the bathroom door and knocked swiftly, before staring at her own extended knuckles. "Why the hell am I knocking?" She asked rhetorically, and shoved the door open.
The three of them crowded to look, and reared back instantly.
The bathroom was narrow, with barely enough room for the claw-foot cast iron bathtub that dominated the room... And in the empty tub, fully clothed, was Eddie Sisko, head lolled back, and vacant dead eyes staring up at them. His expression was twisted as though he'd been scared to death.
But the real cause of death was more obvious. The shattered remains of the glass bottle littered the floor, and Eddie's wrists had been bleeding profusely.
"Oh God..." Jess choked out and ran from the room, one hand over her mouth.
"Jake?" Marie whispered. "What the hell are we in the middle of here?"
~oo00oo~
I don't know what was worse, seeing the body, or that there was a body at all. Curtis Creek was the safest place anyone knew. There hadn't been a crime more dangerous than cow-tipping in this town for as long as I've been alive. One or two bits of vandalism maybe. Grant and Lockett made town history by sticking firecrackers into twenty nine mailboxes in one night.
Usually, the only crime in this town was rowdy farmhands getting profoundly drunk and being a little silly.
There hadn't been a murder in this town since... I don't know, but I know I wasn't born yet. Suicide happened sometimes. Rarely, but now and then the banks would go on a crusade and march a few farmers off the land they've lived for five generations. One or two can't handle that, but the town sees it coming, we rally around those people and hold them together.
I almost hope it was a suicide. Because if it wasn't, then someone just crossed the line. We've gone past just being scared and hungry, and now there are killers in my town.
~oo00oo~
Jake wanted to shrink under Sheriff Tanner's gaze. Even with the reflective lenses, the Lawman's eyes blazed.
"Jake, Jess, Zack and Marie..." Tanner counted their names off like he has taking attendance. "All week I've been showing up to the weird ones and there you are." He looked to Jess. "Why were you coming to see him?"
"We wanted..." Jess' mouth shut with an audible click.
Marie swatted her hard. "Jess, not the time." She stepped up. "We learned that Eddie was the one that gave Pierce the booze."
Tanner took that in, and turned to the only one in the group that he knew his son had spoken to that day. "Zack?"
Zack nodded, hating this. "Pierce told me this morning. Eddie was trying to get him drunk, because he wanted information."
"About what?" The Sheriff demanded.
"We don't know." Jake jumped in. "That's what we came here to ask him."
Jess altered the direction of the conversation before Tanner could press them further. "Sheriff, why would Eddie kill himself?"
And just like that, The Law fell away from him, and he took the glasses off. There was a deep painful sadness in his eyes as he faced them. "I don't know, Jess. I wish I did. I wish I knew why... because the alternative is just too... terrible to bring into this town. Deanna said that the time of death was midnight, day before yesterday. Nobody has come to town all week, and nobody has left in that time either..."
Nobody said it, because they all knew it. This was unexpected, which meant there had to be a reason. There were no newcomers to town, and nobody had fled town unexpectedly. The Sheriff had yet to say it out loud, but everyone in the conversation knew that the town was sealed up.
"Sheriff, you know what we spoke to the Mayor about the other day?" Jake asked finally.
Tanner rose to his full height, suddenly 'The Law' again. "Yes. Yes I do."
"Was Eddie working on anything similar?"
Sheriff Tanner glared so furiously that Jake actually stepped back. "Dammit, Jake; the man is dead, and the first thing that comes to your mind is aliens?"
Jake flushed bright red, very aware of the Sheriff, and everyone else looking at him like he'd grown two heads. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Sure sounded like you meant it like that." Tanner growled.
"I meant it..." Jake floundered helplessly. "It came out wrong."
"Make it come out right." Tanner drilled into him.
Jake tried again. "We decided to look into what was going on, and this is what we came up with. So I figure that Eddie's been a part of the town longer than all of us put together have been alive. And he's the local newspaper-man. He did jumping jacks when the school Football team went to play an exhibition match interstate, so maybe..." He ducked his head again. "I don't know. He was a journalist. If he was looking for answers, maybe he found some."
"To what?" Sheriff demanded. "The trucks stopped coming, they're all from out of town. The radio is off the air, which is a weather phenomenon. Exactly who would he be investigating? Who on earth had anything to lose from the town paper writing about it?"
Nobody on earth. Jake flushed just at having the thought, wondering if Tanner could read his mind.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have a crime scene to investigate." Tanner told the group, and stalked off.
"Can't help but feel for him." Marie said softly. "First time there's been an actual crime in this town for as long as I can remember."
Zack leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "Jake, did your mom say the time of death was midnight day before yesterday?"
"Yup."
"Then we got a real problem here." Zack said weakly. "That means the last person to see him alive was Pierce."
~oo00oo~
"Eddie's dead?" Pierce said in shock. "I was just talking to him yesterday."
"No, you were talking to him the day before yesterday, around midnight." Jess pressed like she was playing bad cop. "Now what the hell went on between you two?"
Pierce rubbed his head. "Well, it was like I told Zack, he was trying to interview me. I was on my way home, when Eddie waved me down... He asked me for a ride, and I gave him one. The next thing I know he's got this bottle out, and he's asking if I want a shot. I tell him I'm driving, so he offers to drive for me. He says he wanted to ask me something anyway... The bottle's new, still sealed, so I figure he's sober enough, and I let him drive. He starts with the plane... Then Doug Gunn. He tells me Dougie's discovered English again."
"He has?" Zack asked in surprise. "You didn't tell me that. What did he... I mean, is Dougie answering questions?"
"No; he's asking them. The only thing Eddie knew was that Dougie had asked his aunt, and then my dad, and then Jake's mom the same question: 'How long was I in the dark?'"
The question was left for a moment, before Jess spoke again. "What happened next?"
"I got drunk." Pierce said plainly, glaring at his ex-girlfriend. "Eddie told me it was a drinking game they played back when he was a 'cub reporter'. Answer a question, take a shot. I took a bunch of them, and..." He shrugged, waving around the jail cell he was in. "Next clear memory is here."
"Where were you two doing this?" Jess asked.
"Um..." Pierce rubbed his head. "Just in the Jeep. My Jeep, I mean. I was... Eddie kept us driving around in circles while we spoke. He didn't let me drive because I had the bottle, and he wouldn't take any because he had the wheel."
"That's how he did it." Marie nodded. "Eddie's been on the wagon for years, he got you drunk enough to talk, and stayed sober himself by driving."
"It also made sure that nobody overheard them." Jake nodded. "Pierce, when you woke up, what time was it?"
"Early. I remember waking up in the tray of the Jeep, and I knew we were going to see Grady that morning... I guess I hadn't sobered up yet."
"Can you remember anything else?" Jess demanded.
"I told all this to Zack." Pierce snapped at her.
Jess reached through the cell door, got a fistful of his shirt and pulled him right up against the bars, getting in his face. "Get used to it, you idiot." She snapped right back. "You're gonna have to tell it a few more times, because unless something unexpected comes up, your father is gonna charge you with murder."
That hung in the air for several seconds.
"Look, he was asking about all the things we'd found out." Pierce said, his voice getting thin and scared now. "I only remember half the conversation, he was..." His voice cracked suddenly. "Jess, are you serious?"
"You were the last one to see him alive, you were so plastered you can't remember anything, and you don't have an alibi." Jess listed the damning facts on her fingers. "What the hell do you think happens next? Now what the hell was he so interested in, that he'd fall off the wagon, get a minor drunk, all while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, just so he could ask you questions?"
Pierce shivered violently, and just kept shivering. "We... we were talking. I just... I don't remember. He was asking about what we knew, and how we knew it."
"Did he say anything else? Did he... I don't know, fill in any of the blanks we have, ask any questions that didn't make sense?"
"Not that I remember." Pierce insisted. "But there's a lot that I don't remember. Jake... There was blood under my fingernails when I woke up."
Everyone froze.
"Did... Did I do it?" Pierce demanded.
"I don't know." Jake said finally. "But we'll find out."
Pierce nodded. "Am I gonna need a lawyer?"
"Not until you get charged with something." Zack interrupted. "But if-"
The sound of gravel crunching under wheels rang through the room, and they all jumped.
"Dad's back." Pierce said. "You better run."
"Don't tell him you know about Eddie." Jess told him seriously. "He doesn't like us being in the middle of this, and if you volunteer that you know about Eddie, it's gonna make you look guilty."
"I might be guilty!" Pierce hissed.
"Yeah. Don't say that either!" Jess called back as the four of them ran for it, leaving Pierce alone in his cell.
~oo00oo~
"We shouldn't be doing this." Marie said awkwardly. "I mean, isn't this illegal?"
The four of them were at the parking lot, going through Pierce's Jeep. They were all wearing gloves. As far as they knew, nobody cared about the Jeep, and their fingerprints were already all over the thing, inside and out. Even so, the fear was getting to all of them.
"Someone's going to see us." Marie said again.
"Who?" Zack asked logically.
Marie looked around and realized he was right. The street was empty. It was the middle of the day, and the street should have been buzzing, or at least had a few people making their way somewhere, but the street was deserted. Now and then, they could make out the curtains in the windows twitching...
There was a kid playing further up the street in his front lawn, rolling a toy truck around quietly. His mother came running out of the house, and hurried him back inside. She gave the street a suspicious look as she shut the door behind her.
"How did this happen so fast?" Jake whispered. "It was two weeks ago everything was normal. Less than that!"
"I don't know, but can we figure it out soon, please? Because this is really freaking me out." Jess demanded from the passenger seat, as though it was just a matter of hurrying things along. "What exactly are we looking for?"
"Anything that might explain what Eddie was looking for. Or died for."
"Y'know Jake, it could be suicide. Or even an accident." Zack offered. "I worked for the man three summers. There's a reason he stayed on the wagon for eleven years. He told me about this one time he got so loaded that he walked through a glass door, woke up two hours later and it took him another hour to realize how cut up he was."
"I really hope so." Jake nodded. "But even if his death was an accident, he was willing to question Pierce using methods that are devious and... well, illegal. Getting the Sheriff's kid smashed is not a smart way to spend an evening, and if Eddie was driving, he had to know that."
"He was after something, no question. I'm just saying, this might not be-Aha!" Zack interrupted himself, and lifted a spiral notepad with all the pages torn out. "It's Eddie's. He uses notebooks like this all the time."
"Why are the pages torn out?"
"That's just how he is." Zack told her. "He keeps the notes in different piles for different topics. He did it when I was working for him, and I'll bet you all a can of chicken soup that he's still doing it now."
"Where did you get a can of chicken soup?"
"Doesn't help." Jake interrupted. "The pages are all torn out. All this tells us was that Eddie was in this Jeep and writing something in a pad. These are all facts we already have. We got nothing."
"Maybe not." Marie took the pad. "Someone pass me a pencil?"
Jess, Jake and Zack all looked at each other helplessly, then back to her. None of them had one.
Marie rolled her eyes and searched her pockets for a moment, before coming up with a pencil herself. "How do any of you manage to leave the house?"
"Well if you had one, why'd you ask?" Jess snarked back.
Marie flipped the notepad open to the cardboard base, and started shading lightly over the cardboard. Quickly, the imprint of the last, torn-out page became visible.
Jake grinned. "I taught Ben how to do that when we were younger. He started shading over everything. The notepads, the post-it notes, the walls..."
Zack smirked. "What does it say?"
Marie tilted the cardboard, trying to make out the words. "It says, 'add to sketches, 44-B'."
"44-B again." Jake mused, trying to think. "That's what Pierce had written on his arm. He wrote it there to remind himself of something."
"44-B!" Zack suddenly shouted, throwing his hands in the air. "I do know what that means." He led the way out of the Jeep. "Eddie had to be the only newspaper man left in America that still kept his notes on paper..."
~oo00oo~
It took me almost fifteen minutes to convince my mom to let us through the door to the Chronicle. Thank God the Sheriff wasn't there any more. The others went in ahead of me while I kept mom talking. It's easier to get her permission for something that's already happened.
Zack worked here for a summer, and I know he enjoyed it, but I've never actually been in the Archives room before today. Every wall of the room was dominated by filing cabinets, with a desk under a lamp in the middle. It felt like something out of the 1920's.
It was so amazingly normal that I almost forgot there was a dead body in the next room. That was why mom had to stick around, until someone could get the Clinic to provide a body bag. They're the only place in town that does, since they do Hospice care.
It's one of those things you don't like to think about in a small town, organizing the funerals. The community is too tight knit. There's an undertaker in the next town over, he sends someone out to check the medical side of it and deliver a coffin, the town holds the funeral. Since the Town Hall used to be the church, there's a graveyard out behind it.
I never noticed it until now, but the Town Hall really is the heart of the town. People go there to talk about things. They get put there when arrested, it's where we organize all the things we love about our lives here, and where we meet to speak for those who's lives have ended here.
I'm almost afraid to find out where this leads now.
~oo00oo~
Zack led the way into the Archives and began scanning the filing cabinets, until he found the one he wanted. "Files 41-49!" He read, and slid the drawer open, flipping through the file folders within, until he found the file marked '44-B'. "Yeah, here it is."
Marie switched on the lamp above the desk as Zack brought the file over. It was an A4 sized folder, thick as a phone directory, filled with papers.
"He didn't get a file this big when the whole town was up for sale to that big agricultural corporation..." Jess commented. "What the hell was Eddie investigating?"
Jake flipped to the bottom of the pile. "I don't know, but some of these notes are thirty years old."
Zack bit his lip. "Eddie was... organized. Really organized. There's got to be some kind of order to it. Split them up."
"Jeez, if I'd known there was homework involved I never would have started this." Jess complained lightly, sending Jake a look. "Should have just taken the money, huh Stargazer?"
Jake chuckled and started putting all the notes and papers into stacks.
Marie put a hand out. "Not here. Your mom won't look the other way for long." She was the only one with her backpack, and she quickly put the whole folder away.
"The Diner?" Jess suggested.
"The Diner." Zack sighed. "Dad's going to wonder what I'm doing there all the time now it's closed."
~oo00oo~
Dear Sir
Several editions and clippings from back issues of the Chronicle have been included, which will give you that facts, but to help you understand my meaning in what has happened here, I wanted to add this note.
The Curtis Creek Chronicle wasn't exactly the biggest newspaper in the state, but it kept up on local events. The weekly issue was only ten pages long, and was mostly about things that the extended town needed to know. Schedules, prices, market times...
Zack told me that while he worked there, Eddie had one rule only: Discretion. As Marie has said more than once, everyone in a small town knew what not to talk about. And nobody knew more than the Editor, owner and top reporter of the local paper.
Truthfully, if Eddie told half of what he knew, the townsfolk would almost certainly never have spoken to each other again. Every bad date, indiscretion and blood feud that a tight knit community can have had been blabbed to him at one time or another. But he always keeps kept his nose out of business that didn't affect him or other people, and he was really easy to talk to. He kept the town history.
In a lot of ways, he was the Chronicle of the town. He told our stories, and all the ones he didn't tell, he kept to himself.
I hear that a few people still in town want to rebuild and restart the paper. I doubt it'll go anywhere.
~oo00oo~
"What were you hiding, Eddie?" Jake wondered aloud, looking over the endless notes. Everyone had their own stack of papers, and were trying to decipher the secrets within. "Anyone?"
Zack sighed. "Eddie had a good memory. The notes he took were to sort out structure for future stories. It was how he decided what to keep and throw away. It's like reading a book with half the words missing. I understand all the notes but I don't know what he's talking about."
Jake flipped through his stack. "This one is an interview with the manager of KPOY."
"The radio station?" Jess looked over his shoulder. "Why?"
"I don't know, but it looks..." Jake turned the page sideways, as though that made it understandable in some way. "I think he was asking about coverage."
"He wanted to trade in newspaper for radio?"
"No, not media coverage, I mean radio coverage. Actual range. He was trying to figure out how far the local radio stations could transmit."
Zack raised a page. "Huh, that's interesting, cause this page? It's a list of dates and places, and he's got newspaper clippings from each one. The story is the same in every clipping. Atmospheric disruption of electronic signals. Storms knocking TV Stations off the air, that kind of thing."
Jess head tilted. "Like we've got now."
"Yeah, but these clippings? Some of them are thirty years old. And they're not from this town, they're from all across the planet." Zack turned the page. "And this one is... There are notes here about... sightings."
The word hung in the air. It wasn't the first time that a single word had brought all of them to silence.
"Sightings." Jess repeated. "Like UFO sightings?"
"Jess, with all the things we've been trying to convince people of lately, I think that if we, of all people, can't even say the words 'Flying Saucer' we're in real trouble." Marie pointed out, somehow managing to sound perfectly reasonable.
Pause.
Everyone cracked up into mirthless, hysterical laughter.
"God, the month started out so normal." Zack giggled helplessly.
The four of them were completely useless for another few minutes before managing to get back to work. Marie looked over the notes in front of her and she froze. "What the hell?"
Zack looked over at her. "What is it?"
Marie held up the page. "Nothing, just... this page sort of jumped out at me. It's an interview he did with some woman in Colorado."
"There are dozens of interviews in here." Jake pointed out.
"Yeah, but the keywords sort of got my attention." Marie handed the page in question over to Jake. "Eddie underlined all the words like 'insomnia' 'headaches' 'vanished' and 'nightmares'."
"Here's another Interview, this one with Mayor Grady." Zack held it up. "Eddie circled words on this one too. Did you guys know the Mayor was a pilot?"
"Yeah, during Vietnam." Jake nodded, not looking up from his notes.
"Well, according to this, he was missing for seven minutes during a routine patrol." Zack read out from the clipping. "Seven minutes. The same as your plane."
Sudden silence.
Jake chewed his lip and looked at both pages. "Both these interviews are over twenty years old." He said in jaded awe. "We thought this started with Doug Gunn."
"No. It doesn't start with Doug, it ends with him." Jess said suddenly. "I got the bottom quarter of the pile. That's the most recent stuff. The dates on this file end with the official press story that Eddie Sisko wrote about Dougie vanishing into thin air, and then he starts making notes again when he reappeared."
Silence.
"Why'd he suddenly stop searching ten years ago?" Jake demanded. "What changed? He was running all over the country talking to people who have been going through what we're going through, and when it happens suddenly in our backyard he stops looking."
"How many places has this been happening?" Zack demanded. "All the places with service disruption, all the places with people reporting abductions, all the places where people are reporting UFO sightings..."
"More important, if Eddie knew something was up... Why wasn't he telling anyone?"
"Maybe he did." Jess offered. "He was murdered."
Long silence.
"Why did he start looking?" Marie asked after a moment. "These notes go back way before anything started happening in town. At least... anything we know about. What tipped him off?"
With a fresh purpose, everyone went digging again.
"What is this?" Zack asked suddenly, holding up a thick envelope of stapled papers, thick with small text.
Jake took a look. "I think... Is this the Town Census?"
"I think so. Looks like he's been going through the whole town... Whoa. Our names are here too. Jake, Jess and Marie all have ticks next to their names. Me and Pierce have crosses." Zack looked up seriously at Jake. "There's only one thing I can think of."
Jake nodded, having the same thought. "Eddie was checking for Implants?"
"Can't think what else it would be..." Zack flicked through the pages of the Town Census. "But these numbers can't be right."
"Why not?"
"Well, assuming I'm reading this right..." Zack flipped the pages back again. "And it's not that cryptic... It looks like more than three quarters of the town has been Implanted. Maybe more than that."
"Hang on." Jess piped up, waving a small notebook that came with her section. "This isn't Eddie's handwriting. This notebook isn't Sisko's... it's Pierce's."
Jake reacted. "Are you sure?"
"I'm positive. It's his handwriting all through this notebook..." She flipped a few pages. "In fact, I think this is all from the last week and a half."
"Since the Plane?" Jake came over to check, looking over her shoulder. She glanced back at him and tucked her hair behind her ear, the smell of her skin wafting over him briefly.
"Jake, focus." She murmured warmly, leaning into him enough that her hair brushed past his cheek.
"Right." Jake snapped out of it while Zack and Marie struggled not to show expression. "Pierce was investigating the plane on his own. I know, because he showed me some of the stuff he found over at the Creek."
Jess snapped her fingers. "This is what Eddie was after! He wanted this book full of all the things The Sheriff's son has seen and found out!"
"And it wasn't just Pierce." Marie commented, nose buried in her pages. "I'm seeing new stuff here from lots of people in town. Interviews, sketches..." She held up a smaller page with a drawing on it, done in colored kids pencils. "What do you think this is?"
Jake looked over. It looked like a drawing of a fishing rod handle, with sliding switches. "I have no idea. It's clearly a Gizmo." Jake confessed. "Maybe a Lightsaber?"
"Let's call it a Gizmo, we won't get sued."
"Hey guys?" Jess said, her voice low. "Murray's official statement about what happened to the plane is in here... and there's another one that he didn't show anyone..."
There was a sudden crackle of static, and everyone jumped. There hadn't been static in town for days. Every eye spun to look at the radio, sat on top of the kitchen bench, left switched on and long forgotten.
Another burst of static, and then a voice. "Testing... Testing..." Another wave of static drowned out the words and the radio went silent again.
Long silence.
"Wow." Zack commented. "Radio."
"Yeah." Jake agreed. The sound of it had come so unexpectedly that it left them all in near-shock.
"It's magic!" Zack continued. "A talking box, it's like magic!"
"Black magic!' Jake put in dramatically. "The magic talking box is the tool of the devil himself!"
"It's these kids there days with their rock and roll!" Zack returned with equal drama.
The static came back, then settled as a voice came over the speaker, clear and strong. "Hello citizens of Curtis Creek. This is Mayor Grady. Unfortunately, we do not have the regular signal back yet, but the Audio Visual class at CC-High have put their heads together and been able to rig a transmitter through the Town Hall Clocktower. I'm told that the antennae has enough power to reach everyone in town, but not much further, given the static charge in the air. I'm speaking to you now with a special announcement: There is to be an emergency Town Meeting, tonight at seven. Please make every effort to attend, and to make sure that everyone knows about the meeting time. Once again, there is to be an emergency Town Meeting tonight at seven."
The radio faded out, and a few moments later, the same message repeated, clearly on a loop. Jake turned the radio down, looking livid.
Long silence.
Marie got them back on track. "Eddie was following the same story we are, and it looks like he got closer? Maybe we can take all this back to Mayor Grady, tell him this time we've got proof?"
Jake snorted. "Proof. Right." The expression on his face was close to raw hatred. "We tell him nothing. In fact, that's what we tell everyone."
"What?" Zack looked over sharply. His best friend had been making jokes not thirty seconds before, and now looked ready to strangle someone. "Jake? This is what we've been looking for! What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" Jake repeated flatly. "Everything."
"Jake?" Jess said suddenly, before he could explain that. She was looking at the drawing of the Gizmo. "Does Ben draw?"
"All kids that age draw." Jake nodded. "Ben's just barely done using crayons. Why?"
Jess turned the drawing of the Gizmo over, and showed him the back of it. Jake saw the writing, and his heart stopped. Written in Eddie Sisko's crisp hand was the notation. 44-B
And in the corner of the page, in a much younger scrawl, was the name of the artist.
Ben Colbert.
~oo00oo~
David Colbert was in the kitchen chopping potatoes when the back door slammed back on its hinges, and Jake came in at a run. "Is Ben here?"
David nodded, a little surprised. "I think he's in the bath, but... Jake?"
Jake was already moving, running up the stairs at full speed. He skidded to a halt outside Ben's door and almost tackled it open. Ben's room hadn't changed since the day before. The posters, the mess, the unmade bed...
Ben was a nine year old boy, and nobody knew how to hide things better, but Ben was his younger brother. Jake had taught him about half the hiding places in his room.
Air vents... screwed shut. Books... nothing. Pillowcases... nothing.
Under the mattress was a notebook. Jake took a deep breath and flipped through it.
The first few pages were ordinary things. Trees, cars, houses...
Some of the drawings were more obscure. Things that Ben had probably seen on TV. Islands, mountains...
And at the back of the pad, was one drawing that raised the hair on Jake's neck. It was the inside of a room, all gleaming silver walls, and Little Grey Men. It was very clearly not a drawing of humans. The figure in the colored pencil sketch was a near match for Jake's half forgotten nightmares.
It could have been something out of a sci-fi movie, but Jake wasn't going to put money on that. He stared at the picture for a long time... before he suddenly heard the gurgling sound of the bathtub draining out. It meant his brother was done in the bathroom.
Jake was suddenly afraid, terrified of his own little brother. He didn't know what would happen if Ben caught him looking at the notepad.
Easy, Jake. You're just a teenager snooping in your little brother's room. Nothing else, it's okay... you're okay.
He put the notebook back carefully, looking around for any traces he might have left. He swept the room with his gaze as he heard the bathroom door open. His eyes passed over the window, and outside, he saw a familiar shape leaning against his mailbox.
Marie.
No time to double check, he could hear his brothers feet slapping against the hardwood floors of the hallway and quickly slipped out of the room.
His brother came around the corner of the hallway just as Jake left the bedroom door behind him, and they passed each other in the hall without blinking.
~oo00oo~
Marie was still waiting for him when he came out of the house. She didn't look at him as he came up the path, her gaze on the street. "I still remember the first time I came up this street." She said without turning. "I thought the place was so small. So... flat, compared with Manhattan."
Jake nodded.
Marie still didn't look at him, reaching out without looking to squeeze his hand. "He's in on it, isn't he?"
Jake couldn't answer her.
"How long have you known?"
"Since last night." Jake sighed. "I've been trying to work up the nerve to tell you all."
Jake looked up at his house. From the mailbox he could see his bedroom window, and his brother's room right next to his. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw his brother's shadow in the window, looking down at them.
"The answer was right here in my house the whole time, Marie." Jake admitted quietly.
Marie nodded. "The others are waiting for us."
"Don't tell them." Jake said suddenly. He looked down. "No. That's not..." His face twisted miserably. "Hell." He ran a hand through his hair. "Just... Marie, he's my brother."
Marie nodded. "I know." She said softly. "But the Sheriff is Pierce's dad, and he was honest with us."
Jake let out a low whine. "Yeah. Yeah, he was."
~oo00oo~
Marie was good about it. They were all good about it. Marie almost took me by the hand and dragged me to the Diner. The Town Hall and the Jail Cells were within sight out the window. Jess and Zack were still going over Eddie's notebook. I don't know half of what they found in it.
I was lost to most of it. I had no idea what what they were talking about. Marie took over most of my half of the conversation, answering questions directed at me.
But I was busy replaying my entire life in my head, wondering when it had happened. When had I lost my own brother to... them?
We were closer as kids, back when we had a common goal of hiding things from our parents and our biggest concern was getting junk food. I was the one that taught him basketball. I was the one that hid his bad report cards. I was the one that tutored him in math and beat up the bullies when they gave him trouble.
When did I lose that? When did he decide that something from another planet was a better big brother than me?
And if he had to choose, who would he want to go with?
~oo00oo~
"You're sure it's the real thing?" Zack asked.
Jake sighed. "You know how you were saying we should have had proof before we tried to tell anybody anything?"
"Yup."
Jake bit his lip. "I think I might have a way. Ben said something the other night..." Jake took in a deep shuddering breath. "I think my kid brother is in this up to his neck, Zack."
Zack took that in and squeezed his best friends shoulder, giving him silent support. "You have to take care of your family, Jake."
"Yeah, but my folks are convinced that I'm halfway off the edge." Jake told him. "If I go to them, not only will they go straight to Ben, but they'll destroy any chance of him trusting me ever again, or worse, they won't believe me, and it won't change anything."
Zack saw the look on Jake's face and froze. "Jake? What are you thinking?"
Jake met his best friend's eyes. "The sky is falling, Zack. I don't know when it's gonna hit, but it's gonna be bad when it does. I have a hunch, and to follow it, I have to take a risk."
"I'm going with you." Zack said immediately.
"No." Jake and Jess said in the same breath.
"Town's getting scared of the dark." Jess told Zack. "Your family will wonder where you are if they find out you're gone. I'm the only one without a family at home right now. I've got cover."
"Guys, neither of you are coming." Jake said seriously. "I know where Ben's going, and if there's more than one person following him, he's almost certainly going to see us. I'm his brother, I know how to sneak up on him. Plus, Jess is right, a person out after dark is not going to be ignored." Jake looked Zack in the eye. "It has to be me. Because he's my brother."
Zack leaned forward. "Then what can we do?"
Jake considered. "I need a camera. I only have two, the large film one that I hook up to the telescope, and the Polaroid. I need something portable and with good definition in low light."
Jess raised a hand. "I've got one."
Jake nodded his thanks to her. "Beyond that, stay inside."
Marie leaned in. "Jake, I want to be absolutely sure. We've tried being honest, and the result was our families want us committed and Pierce is in jail." She tapped the drawing on the table. "It's a week later, and all we've gotten is a week older. The X-Ray's are still the only hard evidence we've got, and they don't convince anyone. The only new evidence is your nine year old brother's doodles, bought by a nice guy who may have killed himself. We can't even ask Eddie about it."
Long silence.
"So what do we do now?" Marie asked.
Jake checked his watch. "Let's go home... and then to the Town Hall Meeting."
"You think they'll talk about Eddie?"
"God, I hope so."
~oo00oo~
Me and the family took the car to the Town Hall. The entire community is within walking distance of itself, and the last petrol station closed the day before yesterday; officially run dry. Even so, dad insisted on taking the car.
I didn't get why, until I saw everyone else was driving too. Nobody wants to walk. Five minutes walking under the glowing green and yellow sky above. There's no fuel left, our cars will stop dead in the middle of the streets soon. But still, nobody wants to walk anywhere in the dark.
Marie was right. Small Town Secrets. Even when you don't know what they are, you still know not to say anything directly. Not even for this.
There's a feeling that every crop farmer knows, right when lightning is about to strike. It happens out on the flats, you can smell it building in the air. It's strange, but the whole town is moving with their shoulders hunched, like there's something in the wind that says disaster is coming.
~oo00oo~
Jess was leaning against the wall beside the main steps. It was a good position to observe everyone coming in, but made it easy to slip back two feet into the shadow of the building. Jake only noticed her because she tried to get his attention as his family came up the stairs.
Jake's father saw her, and gave him a warning look. "Don't stay outside too long." He warned. "It's not safe."
Jake nodded and went over to Jess. "That's the first time in my life that dad's warned me about being out after dark." He said to Jess by way of greeting. "The wheels have completely come off this town."
Jess nodded. "Mrs Blanchard managed to trade up enough that she's got two shotguns and a bolt action rifle. She's now the richest woman in town and if anyone tries anything, she's loaded for bear."
Jake gestured at her hiding spot. "You in hiding for a reason?"
Jess stepped forward and Jake fought down a smirk at her outfit. She was wearing a camouflage tank-top, khaki pants, a pair of heavy boots and a cute French beret. She looked like a teen model for jungle combat. "What's with the look?"
She posed a little automatically. "I'm into survival." She demurred. "But I'm hiding because everyone's asking questions about Pierce, about my parents; and I don't have any answers... though the questions were interesting."
"What do you mean?" Jake asked.
"I learned a few things. For example, Pierce has been charged."
"Charged with murdering Eddie?" Jake blinked. "They basing that on anything?"
"Fingerprints." Jess reported. "I heard from Mrs Orville, who heard from Mr Haggan who heard from your mom that Pierce's fingerprints are all over Eddie's bathroom."
"CNN's got nothing on this town." Jake sighed.
"Hey there." Zack said quietly from behind them, and they both turned to find Zack and Marie coming up the steps. They were holding hands, and Jake was relieved to see it, glad that the two of them were sorting things out.
"Not here." Jess said before any of them could say anything. "Town Hall is full, the Sheriff's Office right next door, including the Jail Cells... The entire town is here. Whatever's going to happen, lets figure it out in private." Jess said. "Later at my place?"
"Where else?" Marie said blandly, and Jake noticed Zack squeeze her hand tightly for a moment.
Everyone nodded, and made their way back inside, where Mayor Grady was gathering the attention of the room, taking the stage.
"Sounds like it's starting." Zack said. "See you after?"
Jake nodded, and found a seat with his family.
The mood in the room was ugly. It felt like everyone was trying to restrain a scream, and it was only a question of who would break first. The Town Council was at their usual position on stage... but two seats were conspicuously empty. Jake could probably guess where the Sheriff was, and he suspected by now the whole town knew about Eddie.
Sure enough, Mayor Grady, who looked a hundred years older, opened the Meeting by indicating grandly to the empty seat. "I know this town pretty well, so I'm almost certain that by now you'll have all heard the news. For those of you who haven't, you've probably heard the rumors." He sighed darkly. "The rumors are true. Edward Sisko, our town Editor..." His voice cracked slightly. "...and my friend, has indeed been killed. At first we suspected suicide, but Sheriff Tanner has classified it as a murder."
Everyone reacted, though they weren't taken by surprise.
Grady spoke briefly, his eyes filled with unshed tears, but he pulled through with strong, calm dignity. "He was a great member of this town in many ways, and if he were here right now, he would hate that there's nobody covering the story."
A polite murmur went through the room. It would have been a chuckle at anyone else's eulogy.
Grady gestured to the town Chaplin sitting at the other end of the row, and led into his next topic. "I would like to spend the next hour listing all the ways Eddie contributed to this community... and to my life personally, but I'll save that for his memorial. The date hasn't been set, as the investigation into his death is still ongoing."
"It was Pierce!" Someone shouted, and a rumble picked up from the audience. "Sheriff can't arrest his own kid!"
Grady shouted over them all. "I cannot comment until the investigation is over. Any suspects would be held in custody, until a full forensic team can make a determination. Of course, they won't get here until we can summon them. That's one of the reasons we've worked to rig our own transmitter, trying to break through the interference in the atmosphere."
"You don't buy that any more than we do!" Someone shouted, and this time the yelling started quickly, picking up in intensity. Jake noticed his mother reach a hand over to pull Ben a little closer, like she was expecting a riot to break out any second.
Grady put his fingers in his mouth a let out a shrill 'Hey Taxi!' whistle. It was enough to get them to start listening again. "I know you're scared. You have every right to be. Scary things are going on in our town. That's why we've been trying to work the problem. That's why we sent our Co-Op Reps Mr and Mrs Connolly out to resume contact with our supply depot. Not only are they missing, but I've been informed that Janice Mitchell and her son are missing too..."
"So are the Newkirks! All of them!" Someone yelled. "And the DeWitts!"
Another panicked rumble started growing, and over them, Jake was fairly sure more people were being named as missing. The Mayor let out another shrill whistle to get their attention back.
"The Sheriff is investigating other people who haven't been seen for a while, but he's only one man, and everyone in town has been free to come and go as they like." Mayor Grady said. "Nevertheless, we have three unsolved mysteries, at least, and it's only prudent that we strongly consider the possibility that these cases are connected. Which is why, on the advice of Sheriff Tanner, and after a lot of hard conversations... I am hereby declaring a curfew."
A rumble went through the room.
Grady held up his hands swiftly. "And before you all start shouting, let me make one thing clear. The Sheriff's office doesn't have the manpower to enforce such a curfew, so for the most part, this will be a personal matter. But there are bad things happening in this town, and I aim to make sure it doesn't spread to anyone else. I strongly urge you all to keep your children close, to keep your doors and windows locked at night."
"Where is The Sheriff?" Someone shouted.
Grady took that one somberly. "At his post. So far, all we know is that a charge has been laid. More than that, we don't know, and laws require that we can't talk about it until the trial."
"How do we get to the courthouse?!" Someone called. "The town is sealed off from the world! I can't be the only one seeing the animals vanishing at the Bridge!"
A loud roar picked up at that one instantly, everyone shouting, snapping at each other, yelling theories, yelling arguments...
Jake said nothing, scanning the row of people at the back of the room until he met Jess' eyes. She gave him a single tiny nod, and Jake rose from his seat.
~oo00oo~
They returned to the same place they had met, outside the Town Hall, in the shadow of the stairs.
"You hear them in there?" Jake said quietly. "Jeez, I thought a riot was going to break out."
"Lot of scared people in this town." Jess sighed. She reached into her duffel and pulled out a digital camera. "Best camera we've got for night work. Digital, great resolution, works in all different light levels, zoom is on the side. Be careful with it; it's expensive. Takes about thirty shots, then you need a new disk. Takes floppy discs, and I know you've got enough of those at home."
Jake took it and slid it into his inside jacket pocket. "Thanks." He looked up at the sky for a moment, and she slipped her hand into his. "You know... It could turn out to be exactly as advertised. The sun could come up tomorrow and the radios will work, and we'll find your parents in some office at the courthouse, and they'll tell us about how the highways are shut down due to heavy fog, and the phones were off the air because of a solar storm."
Jess nodded. "Sure." She said softly, though she didn't believe it either. She slid an arm around his waist, leaning into him a little. "Jake?" She said softly. "You know I don't want anything bad to happen to you, right?"
"I know." Jake said honestly.
"And you know that I don't want anything bad to happen to Ben, right? I mean, I don't know him real well, but he's your brother, so you know I'm on your side about this?"
"I know." Jake confirmed.
Jess nodded, seeming to have made a decision. "Jake, if your brother knows where my family is, I swear I'll turn him upside down and beat it out of him if I have to."
Jake laughed. She didn't. After a moment he settled, and rubbed her shoulder. "I get it, but we're not there yet." He noticed that she seemed unconvinced, and gestured for her to sit down. She did so. "Jess, when I was younger, Ben was a little kid. He was just old enough to understand the concept of secrets, and asked if I had secrets from him. I said no, and he wasn't sure if he believed me."
Jess nodded following the story.
"So that night I waited till our parents fell asleep, and I snuck out my window, and knocked on his. We went night fishing at the creek, caught nothing, ate junk food half the night and barely made it home before dawn." Jake took a breath. "I told him that we both a secret now, because if mom found out where he'd been all night, he was dead. And if dad knew that I'd snuck him out the window, I was dead too. I told him I was his big brother, and my secrets were with him, not from him."
Jess snorted. "So you were the one that taught him all about keeping secrets and sneaking away in the middle of the night, huh?"
Jake rolled his eyes. "Never thought of it like that." He rubbed his face hard with his hands. "He wasn't supposed to be keeping these things from me." He checked the camera over slowly, though he already knew how to work it. "Jess, what if I just go to my parents and tell them that he's still been sneaking out at night?"
Jess sighed. "They could chain him to the bed for a week, but what happens after that? It's starting to come apart, Jake. Once the town was blockaded, we were all on borrowed time. You heard them in there. The curfew's the final straw."
Jake shivered. Jess was right. Nobody knew why, but they could all feel it in their bones. It was like the storm was about to break, and they were all boarding up the windows, waiting for it to hit.
They started hearing voices and the sounds of footsteps on the floorboards inside. The meeting was breaking up and everyone heading home. The two of them inched further back into the dark corner, unconsciously staying away from them. Usually after a Town Meeting there was a gathering on the front lawn. The townsfolk would stay out for another hour, talking to each other, chatting about things. Usually the kids would slip off to play hide and seek in the dark gardens, or Jake would head off with Marie and Zack to hang out at the Diner for a while.
But tonight, everyone broke up instantly, almost without a word.
"I don't know what's coming Jake, but you were talking about it the other day." She whispered in his ear. "Remember? About escalation?"
Jake nodded. "They don't let you see anything, until it doesn't matter what you see."
Jess nodded thickly. "Whatever's going to happen? It's going to happen soon." She leaned forward and put a soft warm kiss on his cheek, staying close to speak softly into his ear. "Good luck tonight, and in case we don't get a chance to talk about it later, thank you for taking such good care of me."
"Are you going to be okay?" Jake asked as they gave each other a little space. "Marie still staying at your place?"
"Her family has apparently run out of patience with me." Jess admitted. "They want to keep her at home."
"Jake?" David called to his son from the street, standing next to the car. "Let's go."
Jake waved. "Go on ahead, I'll catch up."
David shook his head. "Now, Jake."
Jess slid her arms around Jake's waist and pulled him in for a quick kiss on the cheek. To anyone else it would look like a kiss goodbye. "Come see me after, whichever way it goes." She whispered. "Kiss my cheek. Your family is watching, including Ben."
Jake shivered hard, and not from the cold, as he did so. She was giving him secret instructions, and making it look like a romantic embrace so that his nine year old brother wouldn't figure out they were talking about him. Jake suddenly realized that somewhere along the way, Jess had come to view his brother as the enemy.
"Good luck tonight." She said quietly. "Be safe."
And with that, she pulled away from him, melting back into the dark corners. She had nobody to drive her home, and nobody waiting for her anyway.
Jake headed toward his family car, trying not to stare at Ben. Marie and Zack slipped over to him, speaking soft and quick before he got within earshot, and he suddenly realized that they didn't want Ben to hear their conversation either.
Zack spoke first, softly and quickly. "I couldn't get the notebook into Pierce's cell. Sheriff Tanner isn't letting anyone within twenty feet of his son."
Marie spoke up in the same hushed tone. "I had the idea that maybe-"
"Guys." Jake cut them off gently. "There's only so much we can do until we know for sure. If I'm right about Ben, then we're right about all of it. One way or another, the stalemate ends tonight."
~oo00oo~
The entire town headed home, with their shoulders hunched and their eyes moving like they were expecting to be struck by lightning any second.
There was an incredible feeling of the world being balanced on the edge of a blade, destined to fall any second. The five of them looked awkwardly at each other from across the Town Square. Jess was right; it was ending, everything was ending. It was not going to last much longer, and it was only a matter of time, maybe hours or less until the stalemate ended.
But none of the townsfolk would have thought the tipping point would be reached by the two Colbert brothers that very night.

~~/*\~~
~~/*\~~~~/*\~~
A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'The Jake Colbert Testimony' in it's serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.